Economists vs economics (and a call for more pluralistic economic thinking)..

Prof Dani Rodrik sums up the issues with the subject and suggests way forward. He says the idea is again not to search for that elusive single model but allow multiple models, multiple thinking..

Ever since the late nineteenth century, when economics, increasingly embracing mathematics and statistics, developed scientific pretensions, its practitioners have been accused of a variety of sins. The charges – including hubris, neglect of social goals beyond incomes, excessive attention to formal techniques, and failure to predict major economic developments such as financial crises – have usually come from outsiders, or from a heterodox fringe. But lately it seems that even the field’s leaders are unhappy.

Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate who also writes a newspaper column, has made a habit of slamming the latest generation of models in macroeconomics for neglecting old-fashioned Keynesian truths. Paul Romer, one of the originators of new growth theory, has accused some leading names, including the Nobel laureate Robert Lucas, of what he calls “mathiness” – using math to obfuscate rather than clarify.

Richard Thaler, a distinguished behavioral economist at the University of Chicago, has taken the profession to task for ignoring real-world behavior in favor of models that assume people are rational optimizers. And finance professor Luigi Zingales, also at the University of Chicago, has charged that his fellow finance specialists have led society astray by overstating the benefits produced by the financial industry. This kind of critical examination by the discipline’s big names is healthy and welcome – especially in a field that has often lacked much self-reflection. I, too, have taken aim at the discipline’s sacred cows – free markets and free trade – often enough.

But there is a disconcerting undertone to this new round of criticism that needs to be made explicit – and rejected. Economics is not the kind of science in which there could ever be one true model that works best in all contexts. The point is not “to reach a consensus about which model is right,” as Romer puts it, but to figure out which model applies best in a given setting. And doing that will always remain a craft, not a science, especially when the choice has to be made in real time.

Allow pluralism:

We use one map if we are driving from home to work, another one if we are traveling to another city. Yet other kinds of maps are needed if we are on a bike, on foot, or planning to take public transport.

Navigating among economic models – choosing which one will work better – is considerably more difficult than choosing the right map. Practitioners use a variety of formal and informal empirical methods with varying skill. And, in my forthcoming book Economics Rules, I criticize economics training for not properly equipping students for the empirical diagnostics that the discipline requires.

But the profession’s internal critics are wrong to claim that the discipline has gone wrong because economists have yet to reach consensus on the “correct” models (their preferred ones of course). Let us cherish economics in all its diversity – rational and behavioral, Keynesian and Classical, first-best and second-best, orthodox and heterodox – and devote our energy to becoming wiser at picking which framework to apply when.

For pluralism to develop, one needs multiple centres of economic thinking as well. If all ideas come from one country and some select univs, how can any pluralism really develop? Even with this limitation. more diverse and different schools of thought should be encouraged..

One Response to “Economists vs economics (and a call for more pluralistic economic thinking)..”

  1. Nick Johnson Says:

    Thank you for an interesting post. The Rethinking Economics project ran an event here in the UK back in June and is a collaborative network of students, academics and the general public aiming to encourage pluralism in university teaching rather than the narrow mainstream approach which currently dominates. They also want to make economics more accessible to the public. As a former student at SOAS in London, where the economics department is mostly heterodox, I welcome these kind of initiatives. Being able to use different models and debating multiple viewpoints is surely the way forward.

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